Conversion – not a single event but a lifelong process

Howard Sharp, 28 January 2018

Acts 9: 1–22; Matthew 19: 27–30

I’m very grateful to Peter Seal for the invitation to share in your worship today, as this is only the fifth Anglican church that has risked inviting me to preach in over 35 years of ministry!

One of those was Winchester Cathedral, and there I began by asking the question, ‘How many Anglicans does it take to change a light bulb?’ ‘Change … ??’ I know, even as I look round this building, that that would be an unfair comment to make here at St Paul’s.

But it is a good place to start. Paul was a man set in his ways. He was a passionate, zealot Jew who was so anti the message of this new group who called themselves Followers of the Way, Christians, that he made it his life’s work to destroy this new thing and had already gained a reputation for getting Christians imprisoned and worse.

But then something happened. He encountered Christ in a vision, and his whole life was changed. It would be like Richard Dawkins saying today, ‘I’m sorry, can I share Communion with you?’

The story of Saul’s conversion, when he became Paul – probably the greatest missionary the Christian church has ever known – has been said to cause a ‘faith inferiority complex’, because most people in the church cannot tell a story like his, of dramatic conversion. Indeed, the story has found its way into the English idiom, as we refer to a ‘Damascus Road experience’.

It may be that some people here have had such a dramatic turnaround in their lives. They can think of a moment when, encountering the person and character of Jesus Christ, they suddenly are stopped in their tracks and realise their lives need to take a fundamentally different direction. I have met a few people like that, but only a few. Most Christians I know have had their faith gradually evolve and develop as they have grown up in the church and slowly absorbed the life and teaching of Jesus in their own lives. But it’s not quite as exciting as the seismic turnaround that some people have. Hence the inferiority complex.

It is perhaps important to remember that what happened to Paul was noteworthy precisely because it was not typical of the way most people become converts.

One interesting thing to note in this story is that it is not Saul who changes. He is not the main character. It is God who changes him. It is in the encounter with the risen Jesus that his life is turned around. I have often heard it said that you can’t change a person’s nature. It is something they are born with. There may be some truth in that, but the Bible does suggest that the way a person sees the world can change, and therefore so can their behaviour and outlook, and this is due to the activity of God’s Spirit (Zacchaeus and the Samaritan woman being just two examples of this in the New Testament).

For many people though, a story like this is almost unbelievable. If God intervenes in human lives like this, why has it never happened to me or to people I know? Am I coasting along, leading a pretty decent life, so that God need not turn me around so dramatically? Not many of us are breathing threats and murder against our opponents (I presume!)

Yet we have all, at times, been on wrong paths – paths that have been injurious to ourselves and others. I guess we have all been a bit headstrong, stubborn, blinded to our own ambition, selfish to meet our own need, caught in addictive behaviours and oblivious of the true cost to others or to ourselves. It might be

  • the hard driving businessman, so determined on promotion that he forgets his commitment to family
  • the teenager, now adult, who can’t forgive a parent’s error
  • the man so locked up in his emotions that he can’t express his love for his partner
  • the vengeful lover who would do harm rather than seek reconciliation
  • the employer whose cultural upbringing prevents him from promoting women equally
  • the partisan politician incapable of compromise
  • the hard, demanding parent who cannot give a child a break.

I guess we have all been a bit headstrong, stubborn, blinded to our own ambition, selfish to meet our own need …

In my own life it took the breakdown of a friend who revealed to me that he was gay to lead me eventually to changing my view of same-sex relationships and how to read scripture.

When I was a teacher in the 1970s it took a careful examination of the way I treated Pakistani children in my class, compared to white children, to reveal my own prejudices.

It took a career woman in my church in Winchester to help me see how, for her, finding a fulfilling career was important in helping her to be a good mother to her children. As I look back on my life I realise that these were ‘epiphany’ moments for me that began a change in both how I saw the world and how I had to change my behaviour.

We’re still in the period the church calls Epiphany; that word means ‘revelation’, a moment of seeing things differently, when, perhaps, a bit like Saul, the scales fall from our eyes and we are able to see things differently.

Some of you are old enough to remember a song that has the line, ‘I can see clearly now the rain has gone’, and these disclosure moments are like that – the rain or mist of our familiar way of looking at things has disappeared and a new pathway opens up before us.

I’m pretty sure most people here could tell similar stories of their lives, because this is the stuff of ordinary living. The question then becomes, ‘What helped us change our mind?’ What caused us to see reality in a different way?

Sometimes it is a risk-taking friend who has that soulful confrontation with us, or the partner who finally tells us the truth, or the child who heroically tells it like it is. And sometimes it is just the vacancy in our own inner life in the middle of the night that finally convinces us.

I guess the next question is, ‘Was God in this?’ For many outside the church, it is just life experience. Yet for me, for the Christian who believes that it is in God that ‘we live and move and have our being’ and that the Spirit of God, active in the life of Jesus, is also active in life, in people’s lives, in our lives, in my life, today, then the answer is that this is God’s continual work in the world – constantly opening people’s eyes to a new way of seeing.

For me it is more than the courageous friend, the truthful partner or the gap in my inner life that turns us round. It is a light that turns on within us. It is our willingness to take the risk of seeing things differently that makes the change possible. We stood at a crossroad. We had a choice. We could have carried on as before. There were people discouraging me from changing my views and attitudes, some quite vociferous and unpleasant.

For me, it is more than the courageous friend, the truthful partner or the gap in my inner life that turns us round. It is a light that turns on within us.

But when that light that is turned on emanates from the life and teaching of Jesus Christ it is something profound and life-changing. This man whose life speaks of self-sacrifice, compassion, justice, truth, challenge to hypocrisy and false religion, and whose death and resurrection speak of the possibility of redemption, new beginnings and the victory of goodness over evil – when the Spirit of such a person takes hold, then such change is part of the coming kingdom of God.

However, the uncomfortable truth is that conversions happen all the time and need to happen all the time. People are still stubborn. We still find other addictive behaviours; we are still blind and need the light. We are still a work in progress.

God hadn’t finished with Saul after the encounter on the Damascus Road. Converted, he still remained stubborn, and blind. He was still able to upset people and fall out with them. He was still able to say, ‘In Christ all are equal’ and then suggest women should play a lesser part in church and should be subject to their husbands. Converted, we still need further conversion. In fact I believe that conversion is not a single event but rather a process that goes on throughout our lives. So whether we’re 18, 48 or 88 we are still in need of conversion.

The thing that has challenged me recently is the way that individuals and communities, including me and the church, are both culturally and socially blind and biased.

I will finish with an example that some others here may recognise. Just over three months ago I led a men’s weekend from this church at Hilfield Friary. The weekend concluded with a Communion service led by Brother Sam, who used words in his Eucharistic prayer that Peter may since have used here.

We break this bread for those who love God,
For those who worship the God of the Hindus and the God of Islam,
For those who follow the path of the Buddha,
For the Jewish people from whom we come,
And pray that one day we may be as one.

We break this bread for the great green earth,
For the forests, fields and flowers we are destroying,
And pray that, one day, God’s original blessing will be restored.

We pray for those who have no bread,
For the hungry, the homeless and all who are refugees,
And pray that one day this world may be a home to all.

We break this bread for the broken parts of ourselves,
For our broken relationships and the wounded child in each one of us,
And pray that one day we may find the wholeness that is of Christ.

As God opened Saul’s eyes to the significance of Jesus Christ, so may ours continue to be opened and re-opened to his significance for life today. And just as Paul’s experience, though personal, did not remain private, so may ours be part of the ongoing work of God’s kingdom as we live with our families, friends and as a light- and salt-like influence in our communities and wider society.